Being Good “For Nothing” — Does That Make Atheist Ethics Better Than Christian?

Get the picture?

Here’s the challenge:

Atheistic morality is allegedly better than Christianity because Christians are looking for a reward for our goodness, while atheists are good “for nothing.” (Again, I am not saying “good for nothing.”)

There are three parts to that statement:

  1. Christian goodness is motivated by a hoped-for reward.
  2. Atheists’ goodness is goodness for its own sake.
  3. Goodness for its own sake is intrinsically better than goodness for a reward.

Does that make atheist ethics better than Christian ethics? Let’s look at each of these points in turn.

1. Christian goodness is motivated by a hoped-for reward.

Yes, partly. But what is the reward? I suspect most non-believers think we’re trying to be good so we can gain eternal life. That would be a good description of some religions but not Christianity. Christianity teaches that it’s not our goodness that gains us life, it’s the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It requires belief, not works. That’s what John 3:16 is about.

The reward, then, isn’t eternal life. It isn’t walking on “streets of gold.” It’s fellowship with God.

This may be even harder for atheists to grasp. I am very eagerly looking forward to heaven. Read the biblical descriptions and it looks pretty good: No crying, no tears, for “the former things have passed away.” Streets of gold, yes, that, too.

But if someone told me that heaven would be all that without Jesus Christ I’d turn and spit. I wouldn’t be interested. The idea is appalling. What I really want in heaven is fellowship with the ones I love, especially with the greatest of them all, Jesus Christ.

Doing the right thing is, for me, an expression of my desire to follow Jesus Christ because he is worthy of being followed; to be like him because he was and is the ultimate good. He is the greatest lover of human beings in all history. He’s attractive in that sense: he makes me want to be like him.

The reward of following Jesus is being with him. If that’s impure, well, see #3 below.

That doesn’t mean my motivations are always as clean and pure as that; far from it, since I’m pretty inconsistent about living the Christian life. But to the extent that my motivations are Christian motivations (which is what the challenge is about, after all), that’s how they operate. That’s how they bring me to do good.

2. Atheists’ goodness is goodness for its own sake.

There’s a lot to wonder about here. The very term “goodness” is hard to get a grip on, if all of reality is controlled without exception by natural law — which is the typical atheist view on things. It would seem to lead to the conclusion that when atheists (like everyone else) do good, it isn’t because they have any particularly good reasons motivating them, but because they’re doing it deterministically. Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris are two leading atheists who deny the possibility of free will. In so doing they deny that humans act for any cause except for natural law, which seems to exclude acting in any manner at all because of reasons. On that basis it’s hard for atheists to say they believe they’re acting for reasons more noble than Christians.

The idea of acting altruistically seems likely also to be wrapped up in questions of evolution. This is a highly charged and heavily contested matter among evolutionary scientists, so I don’t want to draw premature conclusions. Yet I have to wonder: Is goodness a fruit of evolutionary forces on humans? If so, is it the product of evolution-plus-something, or is it simply the result of evolution? If the former, what is the “something” and where did it come from? If the latter, how does one person’s set of motivations for doing good rise above another person’s? It’s just evolution in that case.

3. Goodness for its own sake is intrinsically better than goodness for a reward.

Goodness for the hope of a reward can be wrong, that’s for sure. It’s often a mask for self-serving self-interest. Self-sacrificial goodness, on the other hand, is the ultimate good, for as Jesus said, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another.

Most of our actions lie somewhere between those extremes of total hypocrisy and ultimate self-sacrifice, however. I like to wash the dishes at home when my wife is away. I do it quite intentionally with the hope and expectation that I’ll get a big smile from her when she gets home. Sara has the world’s best smile, so that’s quite a reward for me. So is my motivation mixed up?

Of course when I do the dishes it isn’t just for her. It’s also so my own home looks better and is easier to live in. That’s a reward, too. Is it ignoble to do good for reasons like that?

Back to Sara and her smile, though. I do the work for my own benefit, but I do it more happily when it’s with the that it’s going to make her happy. What then if it made her happy but she didn’t reward me with that world-class smile of hers? Then something would be amiss there. Her joy is normally expressed in her smile. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

Suppose, though, something else was going on that was troubling her, something that overshadowed her appreciation of the work I did. Then at least I’d know I had done something to make her world better. Even without her smile I would find that thought rewarding.

Now, is that a sign that my motives were impure — that I was working so that I could feel happy inside about making her happier?

I don’t think so. It’s a sign of a normal loving relationship. If I didn’t enjoy the thought of her being happy I’d be a monstrous sort of husband. If I didn’t enjoy making her happy I’d be a louse. So doing good for her is inextricably connected with making her happy which is inextricably connected with my own happiness. There’s nothing wrong with those motivations being tied together that way. It’s the way the world is supposed to work.

Similarly, my love for Christ leads me to enjoy that idea that I’m doing well in his name. That’s just as right — it’s just as much in line with the way the world is supposed to work — as it is for me to enjoy doing good for my wife to make her happy.

(By the way, I’m sure she would be even happier if I were this good a husband a lot more often than I am. Similarly, and even more so, for my service for Jesus Christ. I keep talking about doing virtuous things because doing bad things isn’t part of the topic under discussion.)


We’ve looked at the three parts of this atheist claim of superior morality. There are significant questions about some of it, significant misunderstandings about other parts of it, and a doubtful premise underlying the whole thing.

In the end I don’t feel threatened at all by the claim that someone else’s morality is better than mine. I’m not interested in those kinds of comparisons. It isn’t about whether some atheist’s morality arises out of better motivations than mine. It’s about whether atheism is intrinsically better than Christianity.

For that, there is no better place to look than at our founder, Jesus Christ, in whom there is no trace of him abusing his power, or even using it for his own purposes. There is self-sacrifice. There is a complete and unwavering concern for others above himself. He did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

You won’t find that kind of love anywhere else in history or human imagination. Christianity that follows that kind of example is bound to be good, self-sacrificing, loving, and genuine. Sometimes you can even find examples of people living out that kind of Christianity. It’s a beautiful thing when you see it.

Image sources: Sodahead, Atheist Republic 

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25 thoughts on “Being Good “For Nothing” — Does That Make Atheist Ethics Better Than Christian?

  1. Straw men about reward and punishment within the contours of love fail to merit a response. Love’s fruition within the corridors of Self/Other finds her true felicity, her final good, there in the ceaseless begetting of love’s unicity amid the singular Us. That such constitutes the irreducibly triune is unavoidable.

    Such is but the tip of the iceberg, and is simply to affirm the fallacious nature of any claim about reward/punishment.

    Any such claim is expressly against some Non-Christian paradigm.

    As for ceaseless reciprocity within the immutable love of the Necessary Being — and love’s eternally sacrificed Self therein — well — that is all another story taking us into much deeper waters, which will be left for more skilled folks to handle.

  2. I think your point 1 pretty much ends the discussion. Christians don’t act morally for a reward at least not theologically. We believe in Jesus Christ for a reward. The one you described. We act morally (at least theologically) to honor the sacrifice he made for us.

    On the other hand the idea that atheists goodness is goodness for its own sake isn’t really true either. When it comes to the real motivation for doing good, atheist or believer, we are all looking for some kind of a reward. Our heart corrupts every good thing we do. As soon as we realize we’ve done something good we all turn it into something less than that whether it’s the pride in doing it or an expectation of a reward.

  3. It’s true that atheist morality is also fundamentally goal-oriented. I think the “good for goodness’ sake” slogan was just a fun Christmastime billboard ad, and it wasn’t meant as serious philosophy.

  4. I wish that were true. Look it up on Google. It doesn’t succeed as serious philosophy. Often, however, it’s not for lack of trying.

  5. Hmmm, I think that you have over-complicated it Tom. I got sucked into this sort of discussion a few years ago with an atheist friends and came out with some clear simple thoughts. Keeping to your 3 points above:

    1. Christians do not (or should not) do good to people in hope of getting a biscuit or reward. We do good because we love God. Hitchens accused Mother Theresa of doing good in order to get a reward. I have no idea whether she did or not, but we shouldn’t. We already have out reward in Christ’s salvation. We should help the poor because we love them, because we love God, because he first loved us.

    2. You are right about Coyne and Harris. I heard them clearly deny free will on a podcast recently. So if free will does not exist as they say, then any “good” that atheists (or anyone else) does is set by the deterministic system (atoms and molecules) which was determined at the time of the big bang.

    Worse still for the atheist, if the atheist worldview is true, then good and evil are only arbitrary constructs, or as atheist Michael Ruse called it, “ethics are illusory…” thus good does not really exist. So the atheist view is incoherent.

    3. What is it for the atheist to claim that we should “be good for goodness’ sake” rather than “be good to get a reward”? If this is a moral claim, then how so in light of #2 above? If “ethics is illusory” then how can one thing be better than another?

  6. In my opinion regardless of faith choice most people do good without thinking about it.Sure sometimes there are moments when you have to make a conscious decision one way or another and you might wrestle with complex moral issues but mostly we do a hundred good deeds a day without realising we’ve done them.It’s like we are hard wired whether by a creator or millions of years of evolution.Interestingly it was the Samaratan who did the good deed rather than the Christian(I know) so even Jesus alluded to the fact that non believers could be more moral…Obviously I’m generalising and I am not talking about anyone who wakes up thinking they would like to invade Poland..Studies show that 1% of all people regardless of faith choice are sociopaths and are unable to make rational moral choices and as a result do not take part in my assertion that people are inclined to goodness.

  7. As an ex-Christian atheist, I’m inclined to agree on all three counts. I doubt there is any good deed pursued truly for its own sake. I think atheists generally just mean the benefit of living in a society of people who do good deeds is sufficient reason to perform good deeds oneself. (Not to say that a Christian or anyone else couldn’t agree.)

    Thanks for the reminder. It’s good to note the weaknesses in the arguments often made by one’s own “side”.

    Like Coyne and Harris, I think (libertarian) free will is incoherent. I don’t know if that makes my ethics illusory or my behaviour determined. But whatever the case, I’m inescapably a sentient being driven to seek pleasure and avoid pain (as are we all). To me that’s a perfectly valid basis on which to elaborate an ethical system.

    By the way …

    “It’s about whether atheism is intrinsically better than Christianity.”

    Isn’t it actually about whether atheism or Christianity (or neither) is _true_? Or is that what you meant by “better”?

  8. Thanks for the comment BillB.

    For the question at the end: Sure, it’s about which one is true. In the context of the post I had been talking about which one is better in a certain respect — its morality, so I just hung on to the same kind of language there, as I offered up the ultimate ethical comparison: Jesus Christ to all of the rest of us.

  9. For 1. Isn’t “fellowship with God” still a hoped-for reward? I see no strong altruistic or empathetic implications with your fellow humans here. It focusses just your belief and the reward.

    For 2, who cares if we are uncertain where altruism comes from, except, given 1, unlikely from religion. We don’t have to do the ol’ “naturalism can’t explain this very well” to show altruism / empathy exists as a social custom and/or attribute. When I help someone I do not care for any reward (whether fellowship with God or any other self-focussed objective). It pains me to see others suffering. I don’t care why. It just is.

    For 3 is one type of good intrinsically better than the other? Yes, but only because I choose to think so; and others are welcome to make that choice too.

  10. Also Holopupenko’s link is a strawman. Atheism does not assert there is no creator, and thus has the burden of proof. Atheism asserts there is no reason to believe that a creator exists. Bear in mind the definition of creator can change wildly from person to person.

    I don’t know if there are no fairies – I just have no reason to believe it. If someone says they believe in fairies – I say “show me”. Then they’ll probably say something like they have an inner-witness to fairies which means the conversation is over.

  11. Graham H.,

    To restate what I said in the OP, yes, most assuredly fellowship with God is a hoped-for reward.

    Please take note of what else I said about it before resting your conclusions on implications which (to use your own words) you do not see.

  12. For 2, who cares if we are uncertain where altruism comes from, except, given 1, unlikely from religion. We don’t have to do the ol’ “naturalism can’t explain this very well” to show altruism / empathy exists as a social custom and/or attribute. When I help someone I do not care for any reward (whether fellowship with God or any other self-focussed objective). It pains me to see others suffering. I don’t care why. It just is.

    Graham H,

    So, “Who cares” and you “don’t care why.” Well, this is obviously a well considered and thought out opinion. So, we should just not care why we act the way we do. Not care what our worldview tells us about ourselves or the validity of it. Not care whether our altruism, or any other aspect of our character, is an indicator of some greater power or just “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” Because, why would any of that matter when we can just not care why? Words of wisdom, these.

  13. BillT,
    here you say:

    When I help someone I do not care for any reward (whether fellowship with God or any other self-focussed objective). It pains me to see others suffering. I don’t care why. It just is.

    – and I don´t doubt that for a second because that is my experience as well and, afaict, that is just the way it works for human compassion. However, it does contradict what you said in the earlier thread:

    Do you not have free will? The idea that you have pangs of conscience doesn’t bind you in any way to act on those. You still must make a moral choice. You still must decide whether your pangs of conscience matter to you.

    – Either it is that “it pains [you] to see others suffering” and you “don´t care why” because “it just is” OR it is that you first have to make a *choice* about whether or not it pains you to see others suffer – it can´t be both.
    And I´d say that it is indeed the case that it just does pain you to see other suffers, that´s just the way it is, it´s your nature – and you haven´t “chosen” to be that way any more than you´ve chosen to be bipedal.

  14. Irenicus,

    The quote you have attributed to me above is me quoting Graham H from post #12 (without the blockquote lines which for some reason didn’t post).

  15. Tom,

    This was in a comment at Feser’s blog and the clarity of the point made, and its relevance, hopefully merit this quote here.

    “Santi” stated: “Isn’t the problem of justification always going to be a shell game? You can always find where I’m dropping a premise, taking something for granted without arguing for it ….

    “DNW” replied:


    I’m not accusing you of “dropping a premise” or taking something for granted without arguing for it. I am accusing you of something worse: deliberate intellectual fraud.

    I am accusing you of persistently deploying universal terms which have been rendered entirely problematical on your own account, as if they still meant what they once did in a moral universe populated by natural kinds and furnished with teleologically derived normative standards.

    It’s just all too effen precious.

    Now, I understand, Santi, as the relative newcomers here might not always, that the nihilist dance routine, and the refrain that it is better to huckster the crowd than to pester about the ultimate, is in fact your operating premise. But, and it’s a big ugly but as they say, if you took your own claim of epistemic humility seriously, you would keep this truth about your method at the forefront, and refuse to engage in pseudo-arguments which are in principle incapable of any kind of resolution because of the built-in problems of equivocation; problems of which you are perfectly aware, and have in fact placed there. 

    Thus, when you launch off on these rhetorical diversions, one can only conclude that these speech acts of yours are base and cynical attempts to simply exhaust those who don’t quite get the meta-narrative which lies behind and informs and shapes your surface efforts.

    What you need to do, in order to be “truly authentic”, is to admit to yourself and to everyone else, why that kind of consistent honesty is so dangerous to those taking your stance; and why, unless relentlessly pressed, you seek to avoid it.

    You know Santi, and in adverting to the paragraph two above, there is in fact, something profoundly “metaphysical” in that diversionary, dissembling tactic. Something, as you have I believe yourself admitted as anti-logocentric. Something which at the deepest and most profound level takes deceit, and manipulation, to be at the very heart of a “life strategy”

    It almost reminds me of … well … the paradigm or myth escapes me at the moment. But I am sure it will come to me eventually …

    Till then.”

    End quote.

  16. BillT

    I think you can still answer Irenicus question in 16.

    Also, why is a “why” question such an essential thing. The word “why” presupposes purpose (in most contexts), making it rather circular in situations where a purposeful agent is trying to be demonstrated. A better word is how.

    For example, natural processes cause variations in the levels of the ground. When it rains we might get a large puddle. If we are in a tribe, we celebrate this useful reservoir of drinking water. We have to please them, sacrifice something to keep them happy – the usual story. When we ask “why”, it would lead us to assuming purpose – the gods put this here for us to drink. Our promiscuous teleology leads us to believing in agents when there is no evidence (or no good evidence).

    Same with human empathy. Natural processes put it there. The question “why” is inherently presuppositional. A better question is how. I think there are some good conjectures on this but I am not sure it has been solved with a high degree of confidence. Either way, that is no reason to abandon the “how” and go straight to the prejudicial “why”, unless it can be demonstrated that a purposeful agent exists.

  17. According to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy there are three major approaches to ethics:

    (1) Deonotology- “which emphasizes duties or rules.”
    (2) Consequentialism- “which emphasizes the consequences of actions.”
    (3) Virtue ethics- “which emphasizes the virtues, or moral character.”

    I would argue that the ethical moral teachings of Jesus are an example of a virtue ethic. As such it emphasizes goodness for goodness sake—being good rather than just trying to do good. Thus Jesus’ emphasis on the heart, the motives (Matthew 15:19-20, Matthew 23: 25-26) and acting out of love– not self-interest or selfishness (Luke 10:27.)

  18. #18 / February 3, 2016 at 5:26 pm was a quote of “DNW” replying to a Non-Theist. As it turns out, there was a follow up comment by DNW which adds some insight into the nature of the problem at hand, copied here:


    ….. [ …. ] …….You replied [to #18], “This feels too all-or-nothing to me …

    You will be glad to know that you need not feel that way, since that is not what I was suggesting.

    I was stating outright that given your epistemological bracketing of and placing aside systems of truth in favor of a kind of “pragmatism”, and given your adoption of a Rotarian program of arguing rhetorically, rather than logically and categorically, you should try admitting this upfront, rather than having it squeezed out of you.

    It would be an interesting experiment to observe what would happen if you were to say to someone: “Now, what I am saying is not to be taken as universally true, or even true in your case, but I wish you to accede to my request because it makes me feel better and serves my interests even if it does not, yours.”

    It would be akin to the Churchlands whom I mentioned earlier, admitting upfront that they had no minds but that they nonetheless – wished insofar as there was a they, that could “wish” – had registered an impulse which caused them to try and modify your brain state and thus affect your behavior. Not that there was as they would be the first to stipulate, that there was any real “purpose” to it.

    I am challenging you to give up using traditional moral language in a deceptive and purely rhetorical manner and to adopt a more transparent and less time-wasting mode of interfacing: or, to at least always admit upfront that what you are doing is wheedling, rather than arguing in any traditional sense. I’m challenging you to drop the camouflage as a matter of principle, and not wait for it to be forcibly stripped from you.

    I’m challenging you to admit that your “arguments” are not arguments in any reals sense but attempts to produce emotional effects in others, and thereby modify their behaviors in a way which you find reinforcing.

    How far do you think you might be able to get in this project in that open manner and without the camouflaging rags of a habit you have long thrown off?

    And if you cannot get by in that manner, what does it say regarding your essential life project, and the role of deception in it?

    You mention the post-moderns. Perhaps you would like to share some of the broader implications of an explicitly anti-logocentric anthropology.

    End quote.

  19. Here is an interesting article (Atheism Doesn’t Lead to Immoral Behavior – Or Does It?) which talks about a 2008 Barna survey which I think is relevant to the topic of this thread.

    Atheism does not lead to increased immoral behavior according to the writing of many atheists. In theory, one can be morally responsible atheist. However, in practice, does atheism/agnosticism encourage or discourage a higher level of moral and ethical behavior?

    Christians are far more likely than atheists to be part of groups that work hard to instill values about being good to other people, and having good relationships…

    A random sample of 1003 adults were surveyed in May, 2008 by The Barna Group for their participation in a number of negative behaviors within the previous week. The results showed that there were vast differences in the behaviors of evangelicals compared to agnostics/atheists…

    [The] results [showed] that atheists/agnostics participate in morally questionable behaviors to a much greater degree than evangelical Christians – an average of nearly five times the frequency! The data calls into question the atheists’ claim that moral choices are deterministic and the people do not have the ability to exercise free will. If human behavior were merely a combination of genes and biochemistry, then beliefs would have no effect on moral choices. Obviously, this is a failed hypothesis, since beliefs do influence behavior. Another study, published in 2008, showed that increasing belief in determinism negatively impacted moral behavior…

    Of course there is way out for the atheist. He can simply dumb down the definition of moral goodness to meet the standards his own lifestyle. In that much I’ll have to agree with the atheist. If you are a moral relativist you can define moral goodness anyway you wish.

    However, there is a problem with that view. How do you get along in a world filled with other moral relativists who don’t see morality quite the way you do and, furthermore, think that you “owe them?” Life in that case is going to get very bad for you and leave you wondering if there shouldn’t be some common or shared moral standard. Will it not?

    In other words, being “good for goodness sake” works for the atheist as long as he doesn’t run out of rope.

  20. From Another Vantage Point:

    If ever the book which I am not going to write is written it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery. Large areas of ‘the World’ will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch. (C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”)

    In the process of unpacking Hidden/Revealed it is the case that pushing past any and all Evil and breaking through into the light of Man’s true Good and Man’s final felicity finds us discovering that the trio of [Mindset, Action, Philosophical Necessities] need to all cohere, that is to say, not violate one another necessarily.

    That is why all Non-Theistic appeals to cosmic justice, cosmic valuing of each of us, or to any other contour of good and evil – in any degree – ultimately fail as actual truth-referents. Why? Because *IF* it is the case that “those ends” are factual truth referents *THEN* we are expressly and intellectually obligated to reject any and all paradigms which eventually, at some ontological seam somewhere, eliminate that sort of terminus of explanation with respect to our accounting.

    Obviously love’s ontology need never apologize for love is the very Sum, the very Context from which all lesser sums, all lesser contexts subsume the very thing we call definition. Though, many of us who ascribe to the truth of such do need to apologize (perhaps daily, as I), or did need to apologize (perhaps more globally, as C.S Lewis alludes to). The good news is that Christianity actually has something left at the end of such a process of contrition: Love’s Ontology, that innately and unavoidably triune geography of E Pluribus Unum. Whereas, we find in Non-Theism and even in Pantheism that at the end of any such process the very acts of cruelty we (rightly) despise are left fully intact within the throes of irreducible indifference (on the one hand) and perhaps even as “part of the good” (on the other hand), and so on within ontological necessity.

    Such is not the case within the unavoidably triune topography of E Pluribus Unum which Reason as truth-finder discovers instantiating / transposing in and by and through the simplicity of ceaseless reciprocity constituting the irreducible and immutable love of the Necessary Being.


    Lest those of us who are Christian begin to panic at the descriptive / prescriptive of “E Pluribus Unum”, be assured that such is *not* an express referent to that which *is* “Father, Eternally Begotten Son, Spirit” and so on. *Rather*, such is to help address (in part), among other things, the painfully misinformed presuppositions about Christianity and about Reality which seem to fuel our Non-Theist friend’s struggle with equating “Being Itself” to that which is, irreducibly, “Goodness Itself”. Such carries us into necessary interfaces within all that is perception and within all that is mind and within all that is love and within all that is reciprocity amid the elemental substrates of personhood and thereby force both reason and logic into the embrace of the true over inside of the contours of (stay focused), first, the unavoidable interfaces of Self/Other [.….as in personal interfaces….. I/You….. Self/Other…. Me/You… those interfaces and elemental substrates constituting two of our three inescapable distinctions…..]. Then we keep moving for we have not accounted for the whole show just yet as all moral semantics converge within perception’s and within mind’s and within love’s third and inescapable distinction in unicity’s E Pluribus Unum there in the “Singular-Us” embedded in Scripture’s God from A to Z from Whom streams all conceivable means/ends related to Self-Other-Us. No claims upon Goodness Itself are even possible but for the uniquely Christian Archetype which “is” the categorical and unavoidably triune set of interfaces comprising Trinity’s irreducible reciprocity amid the elemental pouring/filling discovered within the simplicity that is the immutable love of the Necessary Being.

  21. I see that one of our old interlocutors Shane Fletcher stopped by and is still trying to peddle disbelief as if it were some kind of belief. Why is it that atheists, who claim to be former Christians, can’t let go of their obsession with Christian theism?

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